Louise Earle | 21 November 2018
In a separate blog post (The Trend to Recruit Disrupters) I cautioned around hiring the right kind of disruptor when you are seeking a change agent, favouring non-conformity instead. That said, once in the team, what are the issues with managing a rebellious individual?
For many leaders who bring a rebel into their organisation, there is some level of conflict that they are seeking. They seek to ruffle some feathers so that simply "doing things as we've always done them" ceases to be the easiest option. There are benefits to this, as the status quo becomes less easily preserved. And though there will be conflict, perhaps the rebel is simply bringing to the surface conflict that already exists so that it can be addressed. The downside is that confronting that conflict takes energy and distracts, and the risk lies in how that conflict plays out.
It isn't easy to be the rebel in the team. Those who are disruptors by their nature bring with them a history of sitting on the outside of groups, be they family, school or friendship groups. They may well be more comfortable and familiar with conflict than most, and this comfort will increase the likelihood of challenge. But that doesn't mean the role they play is comfortable or easy for them. For those sitting outside of the prevailing norm there is likely to be frustration, exhaustion, isolation and insecurity. I have seen this in a team member with a history of consistently adopting the rebel position, and becoming scapegoated. This had become a default in every group she was in, and despite seeming wilfully antagonistic to others, she found it a painful place to be. Whilst some people carry this experience with them into most aspects of their lives, in others rebellion may be more situational. In the former case, the rebelliousness is likely to be more pervasive and potentially disruptive. In both cases, rebels often express frustrations and challenge on behalf of their team members.
We adopt roles in groups unconsciously, and rebels will often find themselves in the rebel role without being sure how or why, facing negative reactions from colleagues. Whilst colleagues who are less comfortable with challenging may not realise just how much the rebel might be expressing something on their behalf, and carrying their burdens. They may have loaded the gun for the rebel to shoot, so to speak - sometimes with, and sometimes without any awareness. It is important for leaders to remember this when frustrated with a rebel employee.
The benefit of a rebel, if effective rather than disruptive, is that they may well help to combat bias in the team through increasing the level of challenge in team decision-making. I've had many colleagues in my career who have the ability to voice those things that are unspoken in a team, and bring challenge, but yet pick their battles carefully and build positive relationships along the way. Wickland Westcott's Bias-O-Meter highlights a number of biases that teams can fall foul of, and the presence of a rebel can challenge many of them. For example, the status quo bias will not stay unchallenged for long in the presence of someone driven by changing things. In teams where groupthink reigns, challenge may manifest in hidden and passive-aggressive behaviours. In this environment, increased friction may well be worth it for the improvement in team decision-making.
As a leader, you are likely to invest far more time in managing conflict if you are to take advantage of the benefits of the rebel. You will need to back them should the rest of the team try to scapegoat them, however disruptive they've been. That is, if you want to keep the team together. Things are more complex if the rebel is also a group leader. For example, in digital transformation leadership roles. The roles of rebel and leader can conflict, and these individuals have to tread a difficult balance between leading and challenging. You will have to watch closely to ensure that their teams are not put under strain by the drive to rebel, and are led to work with, not against, the rest of the organisation.
Our need for team members who can challenge the status quo is set to continue, and the rebel will not lose their appeal any time soon. Rebels can bring positive change, and with careful management, could be the key to overcoming biases in teams.